Consumer Reports Study: Perception Gap Narrows Between Car Brands

By Kelsey Mays  on January 23, 2012

Consumer perceptions between the best and worst car brands are narrowing, says a new study from Consumer Reports. The magazine's 2012 Car-Brand Perception Survey found top brands like Chevrolet, Ford, Honda and Toyota kept their lead but fell closer to other automakers' scores.

The telephone survey — CR's fifth — took place last December and included more than 2,000 adults with at least one vehicle in their household. Surveyors gauged brand perceptions across seven automotive categories: safety, quality, value, performance, environmental friendliness, design and technology/innovation. It's important to note that overall scores reflect perceptions among respondents who could name a given brand, deputy editor Jeff Bartlett told

"We've made awareness a non-factor, so we've equalized it across the brands," Bartlett said. "So everyone knows Toyota, [but] a few people know Fiat. The question is, of those brands that you're aware of, which stand as exemplary in each of the seven categories that we're looking at?"

The closer results reflect growing consideration for a wider set of brands. Toyota's index score fell 17 points compared to 2010 results but still led the pack. It was followed by Ford (down 23 points), Honda (down 27) and Chevrolet (down 10). Indeed, nine of the top 10 brands' scores fell from last year's survey.

In the past, "there was a big separation between the real leaders and those that didn't" lead, Bartlett said. But automakers are marketing safety, gas mileage and more, making it harder for any single brand's ability to own a category. Take Volvo, for example. The Scandinavian brand ran the tables on safety in past surveys, giving it a top-10 finish by that single category alone, Bartlett said. But safety features are fast becoming democratized — with a record number of new cars earning top crash-test results — making it harder to stay ahead: "In future years it’s going to be very difficult for a brand to truly stand out," he added.

Here's how the scores for 37 brands panned out. For a brand to make the list, around 100 respondents or more (out of 2,045) had to name the brand in unaided awareness.

  1. Toyota (130.6 index score)
  2. Ford (121.1)
  3. Honda (93.8)
  4. Chevrolet (92.2)
  5. Mercedes-Benz (83.6)
  6. BMW (69.3)
  7. Volvo (67.0)
  8. Cadillac (63.3)
  9. Lexus (54.4)
  10. Tesla (50.7)
  11. Smart (47.2)
  12. Acura (46.8)
  13. Audi (41.7)
  14. Subaru (41.3)
  15. Nissan (40.3)
  16. GMC (38.2)
  17. Dodge (36.7)
  18. Buick (35.7)
  19. Hyundai (34.5)
  20. Volkswagen (31.2)
  21. Chrysler (31.2)
  22. Ferrari (28.9)
  23. Porsche (24.1)
  24. Scion (22.9)
  25. Lincoln (22.9)
  26. Kia (22.8)
  27. Jaguar (16.4)
  28. Mazda (16.1)
  29. Infiniti (15.8)
  30. Jeep (11.6)
  31. Suzuki (11.1)
  32. Mercury (10.1)
  33. Land Rover (8.3)
  34. Mitsubishi (7.2)
  35. Mini (7.2)
  36. Fiat (6.7)
  37. Saab (5.3)

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Senior Consumer Affairs Editor Kelsey Mays likes quality, reliability, safety and practicality. But he also likes a fair price.  Email Kelsey